Hollande says won't let protesters choke economy as police clear fuel picket

PARIS (Reuters) - French riot police forcibly removed striking workers blocking a large fuel distribution depot on Friday as President Francois Hollande warned anti-reform protesters he would not let them strangle the economy.

The police operation to free up the barricaded depot near the Donges oil refinery in western France followed similar swoops at other depots this week to ease petrol shortages caused by picketers fighting planned labor law reforms.

Concerns have been mounting about potential disruption to the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, which begins on June 10, and on Friday unions said they would seek to disrupt transport on match days in the towns where matches are due to take place.

Elsewhere though, evidence indicated a slightly improved fuel supply situation compared with the previous day.

In the Seine Maritime region north of Paris, local government prefect Nicole Klein said the number of petrol stations without fuel had fallen significantly and lifted rationing orders.

“Things are improving everywhere,” said a transport ministry spokesman who said all but one of France’s fuel supply depots were now free from pickets.

Also on Friday, managers at the CIM oil import terminal, which handles 40 percent of France’s oil imports and distributes fuel too, took over operations from strikers who had brought it to a halt. They reopened a fuel pipeline that feeds the airports of Paris and a crude pipeline to Exxon’s Gravenchon refinery, a union official said.

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Nevertheless, one in five petrol stations was still dry or in urgent need of deliveries.

CGT chief Philippe Martinez said polls showed public opinion was largely opposed to the labor reform and that the protests could stop if Hollande would reconsider.

“We’re not looking for this to drag on. It can stop as soon as Monday,” he told Reuters.

Speaking in Japan after a summit with other world leaders, Hollande said France’s economy was starting to pick up and should not be derailed by opponents of a reform designed to make hiring and firing easier to boost employment.

“I will stay the course because this is a good reform and we must go all the way to adoption,” the Socialist leader said. “This is not the time to put the French economy in difficulty.”

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Hollande’s appeal was directed above all at the CGT union, which is leading street protests, public transport strikes and fuel supply pickets that also risk disrupting the European soccer tournament France is hosting next month.

Some evidence to back up Hollande’s remarks on the economy emerged on Friday in consumer confidence data collected in May.

The official consumer confidence index surged past even the highest estimate to reach the highest level since October 2007, before the global financial crisis broke.

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Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three months for protests marred by violence on the fringes in which hundreds of police have been hurt and more than 1,300 people arrested.

Hollande, who faces an election a year from now plagued by dismal popularity ratings and high unemployment, says the labor reform is vital to tackle joblessness, which has dipped for two months in a row but remains close to a rate of 10 percent.

The reform, which the CGT wants withdrawn, would make it easier for companies to lay off staff in difficult economic times. It would also allow firms to opt out of national labor protection rules if they reach in-house deals on pay and conditions with the consent of a majority of their staff.

French protesters attacked a police station and smashed bank windows on Thursday at rallies against the reform, while the CGT members sought to choke off fuel supplies.

Seventy-seven people were arrested during nationwide street demonstrations on Thursday in which more than 150,000 marched, according to the Interior Ministry.

Reporting by Brian Love, Simon Carraud and Myriam Rivet in Paris, Thomas Wilson in Japan; Editing by Andrew Callus and Mark Heinrich